Microsoft today (Sept. 1) launched a preview release of its MSN Music download store in the United States.

Microsoft today (Sept. 1) launched a preview release of its MSN Music download store in the United States.

MSN claims a catalog of more than 500,000 tracks at beta launch, with the same pricing scheme and usage rules as Apple Computer's iTunes. Songs cost 99 cents; most albums cost $9.99. Users can transfer songs to up to five computers and an unlimited number of portable devices, and they can burn up to seven copies of the same playlist. Music tracks are being offered in the Windows Media Audio (WMA) format.

Microsoft plans to "officially" unveil the service in mid-October, when it is expected to have a catalog of more than 1 million tracks.

At launch, MSN is offering exclusive live tracks from Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam act Kanye West.

In addition to individual song downloads, MSN Music offers album-only downloads from artists such as Dave Matthews Band, Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead and Metallica. (These offers are not exclusive to MSN.) Users can also link to online retailers including Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com for CD purchases.

MSN Music tracks can be transferred to more than 70 WMA-compatible MP3 players and other devices. However, tracks are not compatible with the Apple iPod.

As part of its portability strategy, Microsoft is teaming with consumer electronics makers Creative, Samsung and iRiver on a series of portable devices that integrate downloadable music, video and pictures. The gadgets -- which cost about $500 and hit the market tomorrow -- use a Microsoft operating system/interface called Portable Media Center.

MSN Music is also offering a range of radio features. Consumers have access to 50 free genre-based radio stations through MSN Radio, as well as a subscription offering that allows for increased personalization. MSN is also offering radio streams that replicate the playtlists of hundreds of local radio stations, based on data from Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems.

MSN is also working with partners in international markets to offer MSN Music services. The offerings are in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Australia.

More than 94% of the world's personal computers use Microsoft's operating system. And the MSN franchise claims more than 350 million unique visitors globally each month.

As part of its digital music push, Microsoft will integrate MSN Music into the online service's search results. Consumers will be able to buy music from MSN through both a Web browser and the Windows Media Player.

Additionally, Microsoft is launching an updated version of its Windows Media Player software -- Windows Media Player 10 -- that allows users to shop for music from a variety of merchants besides MSN, including Napster, Wal-Mart, MusicMatch and MusicNow.

"Our goal with the MSN Music service is to finally bring digital music to the masses by offering what we believe is the largest and highest-quality catalog of legal music on the Internet, available on the broadest selection of portable devices," says MSN corporate VP Yusuf Mehdi in a statement.

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